Dartford Warbler - losing sight of the bigger picture to get the picture

April 21, 2014  •  2 Comments

This morning I went on a mission to photograph Dartford Warbler, and there is some way to go versus what I know I can achieve, and as a first stab it didn't go perfectly This is another species I've never taken any images of worth talking about, and so this caps off a mostly satisfying long weekend where I've also added Whitethroat, Nuthatch and Treecreeper to my collection. Bar the Nuthatch, I know I can probably do better, but you have to start somewhere, and as a smash and grab with no real plan formed, it went ok. 

I left London at 4am, and arrived on the Suffolk coast just before six in the morning. The sun had just risen, and there was still some mist around. Sorting out the camera and monopod, I headed off along a path that went through some good habitat, and within mere metres found three birds. All told I must easily have had double figures, but most of the views were of the tail end of birds skipping off into the heather, reappearing only well out of range. I was surprised initially that there were not many birds singing, so perhaps my visit was a little late and the singing and displaying is over for the year?  Although the light was great, getting anything decent on the birds was nigh on impossible. I must have walked several circuits of the heath and only once did a bird pop up "in range" - and even then it was only my 800mm and 1.4x converter that saved me. Had I been wandering around with a 500mm, I'm not sure I would have got anything at all. Most shots I took qualify only as landscapes with a Dartford Warbler in for scale - that said, I do quite like one of them, the light makes it.

I managed a couple of series of shots as the bird flew alongside a path, perching twice. Quality has taken a hit with the converter, mainly I think due to the air starting to warm up when I got these shots. To get away with this focal length the air needs to be cold. Still, I was lucky to come away with anything - and the day would have been a big fat zero without these, as when I returned to Lynford in the afternoon for another crack at Nuthatch, I couldn't find a cooperative bird, and all the Treecreepers stayed steadfastly up high.


As I mentioned in my post above, I went to Minsmere at the weekend to photograph Dartford Warbler, and whilst there, an RSPB warden approached me and gave me a leaflet and some verbal advice explaining the dos and don'ts (mainly the don'ts!) of watching and photographing the species - I think that between him and the leaflet were specifically mentioned leaving the track, tape-luring birds, lingering near birds, and possibly "pishing". He mentioned that they had been having some trouble with photographers, and I've had this nagging at me ever since. Even though I said nothing at the time, I had unfortunately not followed that guidance at all times. Albeit with no success, but that's hardly the point is it? If they go to the trouble of producing a leaflet, there has to be a good reason for it. I've just looked it up, and there certainly is - I have discovered that Dartford Warblers are highly protected, being on Schedule 1 of the 1981 Wildlife Act. If a bird is on Schedule 1, what this means is that you cannot cause any disturbance to it at any time, but particularly in the breeding season - i.e. now.  If you have not looked at the list of Schedule 1 species, it's here, and contains a surprising amount of birds! Peregrine, Golden Eagle and the like are obvious, but Crossbills, Kingfisher and Cetti's Warbler are on there too, all birds I would consider common. The list is a lot more extensive than you might imagine, and photographers and anyone interested in nature would do well to know it and what it means. I'm not sure why Short-toed Treecreeper might be on there mind you. Not knowing what birds are in Schedule 1 is not an adequate defense, all nature watchers should know what is on the list.

I caused no disturbance, or at least none that I could see, but it doesn't matter. It's possible that I could have, and that's the issue and what the list is for. The birds appeared to steadfastly ignore me and all my attempts to get them bigger in the frame, and just got on with whatever they were doing (being invisible in the heather mostly....), but it's an interesting lesson that I wanted to write about, because I think I have become too obsessed with the image, and in doing so I've crossed the line and I'm really disappointed in myself - I'm the one moaning at dog walkers disturbing our Skylarks for Christ's sake! My reason for writing an addendum to this post is that I have been doing some thinking following being given that leaflet, and in hindsight, really it's incredibly easy to let the pursuit of the image get in the way of good behaviour, and the schedule doesn't really come into it at that point. As I get better at bird photography, I often have an image in mind, and my determination to get it has caused me to lose sight of the bigger picture. The bird has to come first, and I forgot that. The image therefore comes second, and I forgot that too. Common sense really, but believe me when I say that you get obsessive about bird photography!

We all know that photographers get a bad rap, primarily at twitches it would appear, when they are too close, crowding a bird etc (I've moaned about this in the past) but equally this could also apply to disturbing birds away from the big crowds. That appears not to get much press, though I am told that at Gilfach nature reserve in Wales they have just recently banned photography as it was perceived to be causing too much disturbance. A shame as I had never been there and was planning to go - Pied Flycatcher! A photographer who disturbs breeding birds is not the type of photographer would like to be. It was a lack of patience, pure and simple, and that's such an important thing that a photographer has to have. After however long of watching the warblers flit away and disappear, often before I'd even seen them, either not to be seen again, or to pop up miles away, I decided to try and get a closer bird, which I should not have done. Four hours in the car there and back, I really wanted that photo that I had in my mind - I lost patience.

Reading about Schedule 1, it's also possible I unwittingly broke the law, which is something I definitely don't want to do! In actual fact you cannot go near nest sites of these birds without a special licence, or rather, you cannot intentionally cause a disturbance at a nest (presumably this is even if you do have a licence). I don't know the legal ins and outs of it, and whilst I never saw a nest, unless it is too early they had to have been there somewhere, and so my actions could have caused disturbance. Based on what I saw, I very much doubt it, but how do I know for sure? Ironically enough the best images from the morning were from the main path as opposed to smaller tracks, but even this could be a problem, as theoretically disturbance can be caused by lingering near a nest site. Whether this is the case even if a nest is near a well-used footpath I don't know, but it is better to be safe. In theory, as you have no idea where nests are, you should not even stop on a path, but I stopped frequently to scan, and to wait if there was a bird that might pop up, which is how I got a close-ish photo. Clearly the issue of regularly used public footpaths going straight through nesting habitat is a funny one, and one that I'm not sure can be dealt with easily, but I assume that's why the RSPB guy (and it may be been in the leaflet too, I can't find it anymore else I would have posted it here) specifically mentioned not lingering in any area where you see a bird, as you can't be sure it isn't near its nest. Having read more about it, I would go so far as to say that unless you have an afore-mentioned licence, you should not even be attempting to photograph Dartford Warbler or any Schedule 1 species at all during the breeding season. 

Essentially I'm on a guilt trip, and wanted to let people know, if anyone actually reads this, that you have to be really careful. So what am I doing beyond writing this, as whilst cathartic, it doesn't particularly help the birds does it? Well firstly I've deleted the images as I don't want to get praise or credit for an image that was taken during the season at a known breeding site. I also don't want to encourage others to go there, or anywhere similar, to try and get equivalent images. This raises an interesting point, as you see an awful lot of amazing close-ups of Dartford Warbler on the net (hence my desire to take one) but you don't get any insight as to how or when they were taken. Perhaps question that the next time you see a blinder. All the advice I have since read about Schedule 1 suggests that the best course of action is simply to stay away altogether during the breeding season, as that's the only way you can be absolutely certain that you're not causing a problem. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I am getting in touch with the National Trust, and also the RSPB guy who handed me the leaflet and had a word with me. To be fair to him, he was very even handed about it, and I can imagine he was incredibly frustrated as he has clearly seen lots of photographers turn up and get it wrong. The leaflet is a great idea for getting the message across - I wonder if we could do the same in Wanstead with dog walkers - have a polite leaflet that we can hand out, as clearly it can work. If I can end up getting in touch with him, even if it means going back there to find him at some point, I'll apologise personally and see what I can do to help. He may have some good ideas, as he's a photographer himself by the looks of things, and I'm willing to bet that very few if any photographers ever decide that they have approached a situation badly and then seek to do something positive about it. If anyone has his contact details, I'd like to have them. Anyway, there we are, what's done is unfortunately done, but hopefully in writing this and doing these few things I can help spread the message about Schedule 1 and what it means, and what constitutes good standards and what does not, rather than just post point blank images of birds all the time.


I was there in April 2014
They do not allow tripods or monopods at the centre itself (a courtyard between the visitors centre and a warden cottage). Nor do they allow feeding on the reserve - you can photograph on the reserve.
Speaking to the warden there on a day when I was the only visitor there, he said that they thought that last year people were feeding the flycatchers and redstarts dried meal worms which be blamed for a poorer breeding year than usual. He, the warden, feeds the birds live mealies to bring them in for visitors to see. The tripod/monopod thing is because it can get very crowded with lots of photographers queuing up to get the pied flies with young. I was there too early for that, but you can see from the web that they are spectacular ...
Looking at their website, Gilfach doesn't appear to have banned photography, but they do have a heavy 'code of conduct' link.

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